This post is part of a series contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter. Read the previous post here.
Of this essay, Barnaby writes, “Some of this piece might read like fiction. It’s not . . . not a word.”
April is my favorite month of year, not only for the whisperings and stirrings of spring it offers but for the promises it makes and for the associations it has left me with in my lifetime. I was born in early April, which was perfect so far as I was concerned as a kid. It was the beginning of fishing season, serious bike riding and baseball. There was no better time to have a birthday with a good likelihood of receiving at least one of those badly needed trappings of boyhood, like a new fishing rod or a baseball glove.
Birthdays aren’t quite so exciting as they used to be, but they still come to me in the month of April, a month that has proved repeatedly over the years to be my time for renewal, new ideas and for fresh starts in new ventures. It’s always seemed more than coincidental.
One such April, my old friend, Brainerd, and I found ourselves in dire need of some sort of renewal; neither one of us had a job. Through an acquaintance, we heard about a seasonal line of work attended by some of the fever pitch and promise of riches of the California Gold Strike. A relatively new fishery had opened up and there was an apparent demand for elvers – baby American eels – that could pay anyone crazy enough to go after them up to $10 per pound. Had we any foreknowledge of the weird chain of events to follow this brainstorm, we might have given it some serious rethinking.
But the lure of the unknown and the pursuit of the tiny, mysterious glass eels intrigued us. In a tireless assault upon our continental rivers and streams as they migrate from their birth place in the Sargasso Sea, we were told we could expect to see elvers in unimaginable numbers, that the water would turn green with them (the same shade as money) and that their passion would drive them even to scale the sheer faces of high dams. All of these things we eventually witnessed, always at night on the surge of high tide, but before us was a lot of hard work.
Armed only with a rough sketch on a paper bag and a great wealth of ignorance, we found ourselves purchasing commercial fishing licenses, reams of mosquito netting, spools of rope, net floats, odds and ends of chain and two miner’s headlamps. For a week we gave our wives’ sewing machines the work-out of their lives. By the end of that time, we had managed to build half-a-dozen fairly respectable versions of the “fyke net” sketched out on the paper bag.
In a practice expedition outside to the bare lawn, we deployed our nets by stretching their wings to the branches of trees and the funneled pouches and cod ends to the bumper of a pickup truck. With floats strung on the top edges and chain weights on the bottom, they looked pretty good – good enough to catch a robin anyhow. All was ready. That night we would go. The tide calendar said HIGH was at midnight, and an exceptional display of Northern Lights got us off to a hopeful start.
Our first haul was one elver, two inches long. (Approximately 2000 elvers = 1 pound) To hear us whoop and holler, you’d have thought we’d hit pay dirt. Still, we knew we’d have to do better than that to bring home the bacon. The season was early yet.
Then began a long stretch of nights and days strung on sleeplessness, hard lessons and no small measure of bad luck. Our delicate nets were ravaged by alewives, lamprey eels and even visited by beavers. Finally, “we got into them” though and found ourselves dipping those transparent baby eels, lots of them, into plastic bags in the cool middle of the night. We learned to inflate the bags with pure oxygen, and the importance of gentle handling and chill temperatures; these elvers had to be in excellent condition if they were to make it to their eventual destination in Japan, where they were to be grown into mature eels for restaurants.
With this first decent catch, we went searching for a buyer who was reportedly encamped in a pasture on the bank of the Royal River. We were told to ask for a man named Livingston. The place looked like a gypsy camp – trailers, lanterns, small cooking fires here and there and dark figures walking about. One of those figures walked toward us. “Are you Livingston?” we asked.
“Wish the hell I was,” he said. Whadd’ya got? Eels? C’mon over here.”
We followed him. At a crudely elaborate arrangement of bubbling tanks, air pumps and other mysterious rigs, he weighed our catch, unimpressed, and gave us a slip of paper, telling us where to go to get paid . . . all rather mysterious.
It was a nearby motel. One of the rooms, with its door open, was set up as a temporary office. Its business phone was the pay phone in the adjacent breezeway. We stood in line with perhaps 15 other guys, inching our way up to the paymaster sitting in the doorway at a card table with a metal box and a gun on it. He looked at each of us suspiciously as he took our slips and peeled off bills from an enormous wad of money. Whether this untalkative man was Livingston or not, we never learned; and we were never to get paid again either.
Right after that the bottom dropped out of the elver market. We were told the French had glutted it with their closely-related European eels, and if we were lucky, we might see $5 per pound before the season played out – if we were lucky – “But keep fishin’ boys,” they said. And we did . . . for a while.
Fueled by nothing more than a tenuous sense of optimism rumored to be emanating from somewhere in the obscure back channels of the elver business, we lasted a few weeks more, fishing less and less often, keeping what elvers we caught in an old dug-well under a grindstone until we had enough for delivery – even then receiving only IOU’s in payment.
Just when we were about to quit for good, a pickup truck pulled in. It was, Vinnie, the guy who got us into this grand venture in the first place. “Want to go fishing?” He said. “I got a tip tonight’s the night to make a killing. They’re buying.”
We threw all the gear we had into the back of his truck and took off in a last-ditch effort to make good in this game. That night we fished just about every stream from Boothbay to Belfast, and even set nets up the Penobscot as far as the Bangor Dam. It was quite a night. We saw the water turn green with the trillions of elvers churning in the lights of our headlamps. We saw them scaling dam walls. We netted them and dipped them and scoop them up in our hands.
By the first grey light of dawn, we surveyed our catch in the back of the truck. We had maybe a hundred and fifty pounds of elvers secured in oxygenated bags. There was good reason to race the rising sun before it got very high, for it promised to be a warm day, and we had a fair distance to go. All the way to the buyer’s station we figured our night’s earnings and hoped out loud in strong language they were indeed buying again.
. . . That was the last day in at least one elverman’s career. It was April – noted for, among other things, mud, new ideas, fresh starts . . . and fools.
[NOTE: The year was 1979, when the market collapsed. It was very early in the elver fishery. In 2018, fishermen saw record prices paid for elvers between $2700 and $2800 per pound!]
Artist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. Barnaby currently serves on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees. For more about Barnaby, click here.
Sunset photo courtesy of Barnaby Porter.